Eating Christmas

Ah, the holidays. Christmas is all about love, sharing, sweetness, and light — and keeping the antacids handy. In keeping with the spirit of the season, our food blog, Chow Bella (www.phxfood.com), presents "Eating Christmas," in which some of our favorite writers nosh on the real lessons we learn this time of year.


GLITTER ON YOUR TOAST

Luster Kaboom
Luster Kaboom
Luster Kaboom
Cynthia Clark Harvey
Luster Kaboom
Luster Kaboom
Luster Kaboom

By Sativa Peterson

My grandma and her sisters liked to try and out-craft one another.

A new craft project would start with one of them but spread like wildfire to the other sisters once they had been exposed to the craft du jour. One whole year when I was a kid they began making Christmas ornaments. The ornaments were "people" made out of two brightly colored silk Christmas balls stacked on top of one another, the lower ball forming the torso, the upper becoming the head. They each had different hats, feet, and hairstyles made out of felt, push pins, chenille pipe cleaners, pompons, sequins, yarn, tacky craft glue, and the magic ingredient — glitter. They made so many characters: Santa and Mrs. Claus, of course, but also an elf, a Jack Frost, a Swiss chalet girl, a boy and girl skier (whose ski poles were made from toothpicks), a snowman, a snow woman, an angel, a toy soldier, a jack-in-the-box.

But they also included a slew of barnyard animals: a duck, a frog, a pig, a skunk, an owl. Also a Carmen Miranda with fruit on her head, some Pilgrims, a beatnik cat playing a guitar, an elephant, storybook characters like Little Red Riding Hood, and many more. They would get together and show each other the new characters they had come up with. This went on for months. The crafting flotsam and jetsam swelled.

The production of the ornaments spread out, eventually overtaking the entire kitchen table. My grandpa would look for a little space to place his coffee cup; a corner to rest his paper. He was losing ground daily and there was glitter everywhere. On every surface. On his toast. On his shirt. It smelled like drying craft glue. You could see him mumbling "goddamn it" quietly to himself in vain.

I, on the other hand, loved it. My grandma's dining room table was like peeking into the elves' workshop at the North Pole. Little piles of spilled sequins lay here and there as if in the aftermath of a raging little party.

But even this wasn't enough. The sisters brought food to their crafting get-togethers. Cinnamon rolls, festive wreaths made out of green food-colored Rice Krispies treats, homemade bread, and a hot drink mixture that was one of their earlier fads. Called Friendship Tea, its ingredients included Tang, lemonade mix, and clove. Sticky fingers adhered to plates and mugs.

By the time this Christmas ornament craft wave passed, my grandmother had made several complete sets of these people, with enough variety to cover an entire Christmas tree or two. I thought they were marvelous.

Now, Liam, the man in my life, finds them overwhelming. Especially taken in total. But we always put a few of them out each year at Christmastime. I like what they represent: a little good-natured family competition, food as an integral part of being together, going overboard, and being one of those people who, from time to time, gets a little carried away. Isn't that what the holidays are all about?


BRIE PEOPLE

By Laurie Notaro

At the mention of the word "Brie," I immediately became terrified for my sister.

For the first time in our lives, Christmas Eve was not going to be at my mother's house, and my sister had stepped up to the plate.

"I've done it for 40 years," my mom had announced suddenly. "Figure it out on your own."

It came as a significant shock to most of my family. How would our holiday stay intact if we changed venues? What about tradition? No one's ever decided to light a Christmas tree in front of the Empire State Building — it would be heresy! We had never had Christmas Eve anywhere else, and it was very much akin to my mother canceling the holiday altogether.

What were we supposed to do now? Gather at the buffet at Outback, my parents' favorite restaurant (but only before 5 p.m.), or, even worse, meet up in the parking lot of the casino where she'd suggested we have Thanksgiving? If we started having milestone events at the casino, I had no idea what the future held for my family, but if this was the direction we were heading, it wasn't good and could only involve myriad single-wides on a dirt lot somewhere in West Phoenix with a cardboard sign that said "Notaro Village" in Sharpie nailed to the mailbox. And possibly a communal outhouse.

But my baby sister Lisa took it in stride. She simply shrugged and said, "So? Let's just have Christmas at my house."

"Do you — do you think we're . . . allowed?" I stammered.

"Why not?" Lisa said. "She was the one who said she was sick of being everyone's Christmas servant. In my book, that leaves it wide open."

I thought about it for a minute, and it seemed plausible. Why couldn't we have it at Lisa's house? Our traditional Christmas Eve antipasto was easy enough to re-create. I knew where all the good Italian delis in town were. I knew how to make roasted peppers and garlic in olive oil; I could roll up prosciutto and sopressata. It could actually be like Christmas!

Until my sister said, "And I'm thinking about making this thing I had at a restaurant that was so good. It was Brie baked in blueberries!"

Brie and blueberries, the hair standing up on my neck screamed. Not only are we changing locales but we're also introducing unknown variables? I began to panic. Didn't she know how this might tip the balance of the holiday dynamic? Everything had been the same — exactly the same — on Christmas Eve for as long as I knew. We used the same plates. We sat in the same seats. We had the same arguments, although the subject of Jill Biden's promiscuity was a new topic introduced in 2009 and we had to clear the room of everyone under 18.

And now, Brie and blueberries? That might knock us out of orbit, only to end up at the casino next year! It wasn't Italian, I knew that, but what nationality are blueberries?

I looked at my sister, and she was so excited. She had just taken on a lot, I knew, and if need be, I thought, I could do damage control once my mother saw the new dish on the antipasto spread. I would take the blame. She hates me the most, anyway, and I could just say that I borrowed the recipe from my husband's kin, who have been in the United States for so long that they are an eighth of everything, including Pilgrim, Native American, slave owners, abolitionists, sharecroppers, and people who eat cornbread. It was the cornbread faction that made my mother cry when I got engaged.

As my sister and I set everything up for dinner that Christmas Eve, she pulled the Brie and blueberries out of the oven. It looked delicious. She placed it in the very center of the table, within eyeshot of everyone. I knew this had the potential of a Jill Biden-type evacuation of the young, and I just crossed my fingers that we could get past this potential disaster without wills being redrawn and paternity tests challenged (which is always Plan A with the cornbread side of the family).

I waited nervously as the rest of our family arrived and assembled around the table, ready to dig into the antipasto. It was then that I watched my mother do a double-take when she saw something that wasn't a cured meat in front of her. She leaned forward, raised a brow, and sniffed.

"Get the kids," I whispered to my sister, whose eyes suddenly went wide. "This thing is gonna blow."

But my mother, instead of furrowing her brow and looking for a dish towel to use as a whip, picked up a cracker and dipped it in the blueberries.

I held my breath as she chewed, trying to figure out if people wearing natural fibers could even pass the dress code of the casino. I was going to have to get some gold bracelets and ask relatives still in New Jersey for makeup tips. I might have to procure a clothing item in a leopard-skin pattern.

My mother looked up, and looked me in the eye for a moment.

Oh, God, I thought, feeling chilled. Am I going to have to start smoking again?

And then she picked up a second cracker and went in for another bite.


CASH IN

By Tania Katan

Being Chosen to be in covenant with God is not as glamorous as it sounds. Look, it wasn't my choice to be chosen. It was God's! And let me tell you a little something about being one of God's favorites: It sucks. It's like being your boss' favorite or your teacher's favorite. Everyone hates you, and you get more work/assignments/pogroms thrown at you because your boss/teacher/God doesn't want co-workers/fellow students/Christians to think that you're getting any special treatment.

So, it's Christmas day, for some a celebration, for others a day when finding a decent cup of coffee and a sweet treat is nearly impossible. A Chosen friend of mine, with an equally compelling coffee habit, told me about a place in Scottsdale that might be open. "Gelato Spot. And it has great espresso, too. Shalom!"

The sign said, "G Spot OPEN!" Espresso, gelato, and arousal all at the same time? This is my idea of a Christmas miracle. The man behind the counter looked like a young Ronald Reagan. Stiff hair, blue coruscate eyes, and a simple smile. "Welcome to the Gelato Spot. What can I get for you?" he asked and meant it.

"I'll have a cappuccino and a small gingerbread gelato. Do you have a restroom? I'm going to stay for a bit and write."

"Yes, the restrooms are right over there."

As if little chunks of gingerbread scattered throughout creamy vanilla gelato weren't enough, my cappuccino tasted like it was shipped in from Italy! But there is nothing more arousing than a super-clean cafe bathroom! Except for what I found in that bathroom.

Amid the lotions and pomegranate pump-soaps, I found an envelope. A sandy, 5-by-7 envelope. Totally unremarkable. I opened it. There was a $20 bill, and another 20, and another, and another. A hundred dollars in wrinkly $20 bills, smoothed out and carefully grouped together!

So, I did what anyone who has been Chosen by God to receive this cash would have done: I thought about all the things I could buy with it, then I turned it in to Mr. Gelato Reagan. He thanked me, and I left the G Spot feeling morally stimulated.

This wasn't the first time God challenged me on my path to righteousness. When I was 9 years old, my twin brother and I were riding bikes through El Dorado Park, which would have been totally unremarkable except for the fact that on that day, instead of looking up, I looked down. That's when I saw a dollar bill on the ground. Then another, and another, and another, and after six $1 bills in a row, the money trail went cold. I grabbed the cash and told my brother to follow me to the rec center. When I emerged from the rec center with no money in my hands, he asked, "What happened?"

"I turned it in. It belongs to someone else," I said.

"Are you stupid?" my brother asked. "No one can prove it's their money. The rec center people are just gonna keep it, Tania."

His logic made sense, plus the rec center people were mean to kids and seemed undeserving of all that cash. I came up with a plan. "Okay," I said, "I'll give you two bucks if you go in and claim the money." He got the cash.

As a struggling writer, I was compelled by both the story and the money that sprang from the G Spot (pun intended). I called, almost daily, to inquire about it. Did someone claim it? What did they look like? Why did they leave it behind? Each time, Mr. Gelato Reagan told me that no one had claimed it. After months, my inquiries being dismissed by the manager who had no idea what I was talking about, and with Mr. Reagan getting more and more irritated by my calls, I stopped. The money seemed to have disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands, to do the righteous thing. I called my mother. "Mom, you have to call Gelato Spot and tell them that you left a 100 dollars, in an unmarked envelope, in their bathroom. I'll give you 50 bucks if you do it!"

My mother and I conducted rehearsals by phone.

"Okay, Tania, how's this: Hello, Gelato Spot. I am Joelle Katan. I think I left 100 dollars — that's five 20s — in your bathroom, at the Gelato Spot."

"It sounds stiff, Mom, like you're reading a script. What's your motivation?"

"My daughter asked me to do something and I love my daughter."

"That's not motivation! I'll give you motivation. You've got babies — a lot of them, 15 — and you can't afford diapers, and you all live in a 1978 Toyota Corona station wagon. And there's a cop knocking on your door, I mean, hatchback! Now pick up that phone and call Gelato Spot!"

I'm certain that my mother gave a compelling performance — albeit a little stiff — but the manager told her that there was no money turned in. So, almost a year after I turned in the money, I decided to go into the G Spot and find out what happened to it.

Mr. Gelato Reagan was at the register. "Single, wet, cappuccino, right?" he said.

"Yes, good memory," I said. "What ever happened to that $100 I turned in about a year ago?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." he said.

"The 100 bucks? From the bathroom? Remember?"

"No. Sorry."

Any smug barista who remembers your coffee drink has to remember a Jewish writer, on Christmas day, finding $100 in the bathroom, and turning it in!

"You really don't remember?"

"Well," he started, "about a month after you turned it in, no one claimed it, so . . . I just spent it."

I was stunned. I told Mr. Gelato Reagan that I would not be paying for my cappuccino today! "Since you're a hundredaire, you can buy it for me!" He smiled nervously and said, "Yeah, sure. So . . . we're okay, right? You and me," he asked.

"Sure," I said. "We're fine."

"Because, you know, I thought that you were a psychologist conducting some sort of social experiment."

"And stealing the money was the right choice to make on this hidden-camera show in your mind?"

"I guess."

"What are your professional aspirations?" I asked him.

"I'm a business major," he said, with no irony.

Here's the deal with choices: When you're lucky enough to make the right one, you often don't realize it until later, sometimes years later. And when you make the wrong one, you feel it instantly and try to save face by making odd excuses. So, the next time God chooses to throw someone else's money my way, I hope that I choose to turn it in. Or get my mom some acting classes. Not sure which one yet, but I'll keep you posted.


IT'S A DRY EAT

By Robrt L. Pela

It's the week before Thanksgiving, and I am making 80 dozen Christmas cookies.

Surrounded by metal contraptions that resemble waffle irons, I am cranking out hundreds of flat, round, paper-thin Italian holiday cookies that signal — at least to Italian Americans from northeastern Ohio — that Christmas is nearly here.

I don't eat pizzelles, a traditional Italian cookie I've heard people describe as resembling snowflakes and giant drinks coasters, but I've been making them practically since I was old enough to stand. I've got it down to a science: Plop two spoonfuls of sticky, anise-flavored batter onto the grooved face of the electric pizzelle iron; close iron; open second iron and remove cookies and place on cooling rack; fill second iron with batter; move on to third iron, filling it with batter and closing it, by which time the cookies in the first iron are done and I'm ready to start again.

To my palate, pizzelles don't taste like much, no matter what kind of flavoring I add. But white people seem to like them, and I can make a lot of them in very little time. Today, I've been making pizzelles for a half-hour and I've already got about 400 cookies made.

My spouse, Tevye, wanders through the dining room where I've set up my pizzelle assembly line. "Oh, hurray!" he sneers. "Sawdust cookies! It must be Christmastime!"

Ha ha. Tevye contends that all the Italian sweets I make are dry and flavorless. Not because he's unkind or because I'm preparing the recipes badly. Because he's right. The seven dozen biscotti I made yesterday are exactly perfect, and just like the ones for which people pay three bucks apiece at coffee houses and better delis. They're also like roofing shingles: brittle and flavor-free. I've attempted biscotti recipes other than the traditional one used by my grandmother, ones with exotic ingredients like rosemary and toasted almonds and dipped in melted chocolate, and the cookies are certainly tastier. But they're not traditional. They're someone else's Christmas.

"At least someone else's Christmas doesn't require a half-gallon of milk to force down," Tevye reminds me as I plop out my 800th spoonful of pizzelle batter. "Please tell me you're not going to make taralli this year."

"Too late," I mutter into my mixing bowl. "They're in the freezer."

"Oh, good!" Tevye crows. "Because it's not Christmas without freeze-dried pepper-and-fennel pretzels!"

Well, no. It isn't. At least according to my family traditions. Last year, though, I tossed tradition out the window and, in an attempt to compensate for the parched sweets of my people, I swapped a soaked-in-rum English Christmas cake for the traditional New Year's Eve rice pie (or, as Tevye calls it, Sahara Desert Pie) that my great-grandmother used to serve every December 31. We'd had Christmas cake at a friend's house in London on Boxing Day the year before, and it was the moistest holiday dessert I'd ever eaten. The very complicated recipe involved making a dense, candied-fruit-filled cake that one "fed" with cognac, once a day for a whole month before the holidays. Then, just before serving, one covered the cake with sheets of marzipan and topped it off with a two-inch-thick layer of royal icing.

"So you're replacing the New Year's Eve pie made from wood shavings and sand with a cake filled with rubbing alcohol and smeared with lard," Tevye clarified. "One into which you've poured $80 worth of hooch, and that will set off carbon monoxide meters all over downtown Phoenix?"

I remained resolute, and served my Christmas cake to the neighbors who came for a midnight toast on New Year's Eve.

They were polite. Mostly. Two or three of them took a nibble, but even the drunkest of our guests left most of their Christmas cake on their Santa plates. The next morning, I had about 30 pounds of rum-drenched fruitcake to unload.

In the end, we left it on the sidewalk in front of the neighborhood park, hoping a homeless person with a drinking problem might want it.

"Maybe you should go back to baking with splinters and sawdust," Tevye suggested as we headed back to our house. "At least pizzelles look nice."


ESTELLE

By Kim Porter

My friend Lisa and I stand on Estelle's porch between two precarious towers of unread newspapers. "Oh, no. I had an uncle who was a hoarder," Lisa says. "I hope she's not a hoarder," she says as she presses the doorbell.

"Wait. She's not related to you?" I ask, still unclear how she knows this old lady.

Lisa shakes her head. "She shops at my store. I think she thinks I'm Jewish."

"But, you say she's like Maude from Harold and Maude, right?" I say, picturing the two braids that feisty Ruth Gordon wore pinned atop her head.

"Well . . .," she fumbles to clarify. "I meant, she's eccentric."

I imagine Estelle pounding out showtunes on the piano and trusting us with a peek at her newest invention. I'm going to love being friends with an eccentric old Jew.

I'm nervous. I've never been to Hanukkah before, and I hope this Estelle person will be able to tell, even though I was born in the Bible Belt to Methodist parents and at 24 I have met only a handful of Jewish people in my life and don't actually know anything about Jews (aside from the stereotypes made irresistible by the Woody Allen movies I consumed obsessively like an antidote to the country music I was forced to listen to as a teen), that deep down I am a Jew. I'm a Jew trapped in a shiksa, waiting to be discovered. I hope Estelle will be able to sense that.

More importantly, I am eager to finally try a latke. I've heard they are to be eaten with either applesauce or sour cream and I don't know if one is considered more Jewish than the other, so I plan to follow our hostess' lead. I'm also hoping she'll serve other famous Jewish foods like blintz or gefilte fish or matzoh balls or chopped liver.

The door opens, and when I see Estelle's two naked foot-long breasts dangling to the waist band of her white cotton underpants, I realize that Lisa and I should have synchronized our definitions of eccentric.

"You're late! You're late!" she screams. And we are. Still, I can't help wondering how much more flesh we'd be seeing if we'd arrived on time.

"Come in and meet my boyfriend, " she commands, her breasts oscillating with impatience. Lisa and I exchange perfectly concealed looks of horror as Estelle trots off toward the kitchen.

"Hoarder," Lisa whimpers as we step into the living room and see the full picture.

In my experience, there are two kinds of squalor: clean squalor (from too much stockpiling) and dirty squalor (from broken perfectionism). Estelle's squalor was the clean kind. It looked like the entire contents of a Big Lots store had been dumped into a 1,600-square-foot house; demoralizing, yes, but not infectious.

In the kitchen, Estelle introduces us to her boyfriend, a silk-screened beach towel bearing the likeness of Tom Selleck. Lisa says, "Hi," but, Tom, being a towel, does not reply.

Before this evening is over, Lisa and I will, at Estelle's insistence, put on toy gun belts and felt cowboy hats and accompany her to her local kosher deli for latkes. Only, because we are so late, they will already be out of latkes. We will put out two separate kitchen fires. We will pretend to eat still-bloody chicken served on a bed of chopped hot dogs, grapes, and spoon-size shredded wheat. And around midnight, when I think I might become "eccentric" myself if we don't escape this place, we will spend over an hour being shown, over and over, the same four tchotchkes (one of which is a Happy Meal toy) as Estelle clings to our elbows begging, "Don't go! I want to show you this beautiful thing."

We will never get around to lighting the candles, which are rumored to be integral to Hanukkah. I will never eat a latke with applesauce or sour cream. And, sadly, my latent Judaism will not be revealed.

But, for now, in the kitchen, Estelle asks, "Manishewitz?" and Lisa nods.

"What's Manischewitz?" I whisper to Lisa. "Another one of her boyfriends?"

"I think it's something Jewish," she says.

Bring it on.


GOOD ENOUGH

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

One holiday season, I stumbled across an inspiring magazine article. The glossy photo showed a cashmere-draped, model-thin mother beaming at her husband while he trimmed the Christmas tree. All the ornaments were homemade. By the tree sat a curly-headed toddler, proudly clutching her crooked tinfoil star. What children treasure most about the holidays, this article proclaimed, are unique family traditions.

Suddenly, oodles of presents under the tree weren't enough. My daughter needed a unique tradition. I thought back to my childhood. Was there anything that stood out? A particular book my mother read every Christmas Eve, pillow fights on Christmas morning, hot chocolate with presents? And then I remembered.

Fantasy fudge. We'd made it every winter, using the recipe on that blue-capped, wide-hipped marshmallow creme jar. I would sit on the counter, strategically positioned by the chocolate chips, while my mother measured out sugar and margarine. She poured in a can of milk and the kitchen was filled with the quiet sounds of bubbling and stirring. I dumped the remaining chocolate chips into the pot, and my mother watched carefully as I stirred with a big wooden spoon. Chocolate melted and swirled; the luxurious aroma made my mouth water. When it was time to add the marshmallow creme, my mother held the jar while I slid a butter knife inside and twisted out a thick glob. I plopped it into the mixture and stirred until my arms ached. My mother finished, and while we waited for the fudge to cool, I licked the spoon.

This is the tradition I decided to re-create with Abigail. Christmas was a week away, but first we were taking a snowy vacation up north. We could have some fudge to take with us.

I ceremoniously tied an apron on my daughter and propped her next to the chocolate chips. Abigail stirred in the marshmallow creme and licked the spoon while I finished mixing. (How did my mother make this look so effortless?) I poured the thick silky chocolate into a pan, and we bundled up in the family room to watch The Polar Express while the fudge cooled.

By the end of the movie, the fudge still hadn't set. Instead of soft velvety blocks, I had a pan of grainy mush.

"What the hell happened?" I asked my husband. "No one screws up fudge."

He peered into the pan. "That's supposed to be fudge?"

"Never mind," I snapped. "I guess we can't take it to Flagstaff."

"No, let's take it," he said, his mouth working against a smile. "We can stick the pan in the snow, maybe it'll set."

"That's very funny. You're such a funny guy." I grabbed the pan and a couple of spoons and headed back to the family room, where The Polar Express was restarting. I dimmed the lights, snuggled up with my little girl, and handed her a spoon. This was good enough for me.


CORN CASSEROLE

By Judy Nichols

To me, Christmas is Kansas roads, drifting snow, and corn casserole, a down-home dish that gets no respect until you taste it.

When I was little, we would drive for hours across the flat farmland to get from one house of grandparents to another, the beams of our headlights catching only snowflakes and the unending yellow centerline of a Kansas highway.

My sister and I would squeal as we reached the familiar turnoff to Hanover and came over the hill to see the tiny main drag lined with twinkly lights and big plastic candy canes. It looked like the North Pole.

My grandmother Ida would be watching through the frosty window in her front door, waiting with a table loaded with steaming food: pheasant my grandfather had saved from a hunt, potatoes dug from the backyard garden after the first frost and stored in the root cellar, jars of pickles put up in the heat of summer with help from the neighbor ladies, and homemade pie made from frozen cherries picked off the tree outside the back porch.

At the Dunwells, my father's side, my grandmother Mollie laid a table with recipes born of the Depression, like meatballs stretched with rice, and rabbits she trapped in the backyard.

Her corn casserole was brilliant in its Kansas flavor and its mistake-proof simplicity. The "recipe" is not written anywhere, just remembered, passed from my father's mother, to my mother, to me: a can of creamed corn, an egg and saltine crackers, crushed, some stirred in and some sprinkled on top. Bake at 350 degrees until golden and set in the middle. It is easily expanded to feed whatever number is coming to dinner.

The first time I made it for my Italian in-laws in New York, they scoffed as it bubbled in the oven.

"Oh, my, you opened a can of corn," Carmella said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "You'd better sit down." Granted, my brother-in-law, Ray, had spent hours making lobster sauce for the pasta.

But once that piece of Kansas Depression hit the table, the Italians were beguiled, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they "woofed" it.

In fact, Carmella was so enamored that corn casserole became her go-to dish.

Unfortunately, she keeps trying variations, like adding a higher proportion of egg to make a sort of corn soufflé, or using Triscuits instead of saltines. Do not go there.

I will admit to two slight alterations: using one can of drained whole-kernel corn for every can of creamed corn to give the dish more texture, and adding more crackers than my grandmother did to make it stiffer. Any other changes mess with perfection.

My grandmother died while I was in college and, in March, my father passed away. I realize that it's time to teach the next generation how to make corn casserole, so this year, my son Nate, a college freshman, will be crunching the crackers.

And I hope that, somewhere on Staten Island, Carmella will be handing the can opener to her son Mario.


THE CHESTNUT ASSAULT

By Zachary Fowle

Growing up in Las Vegas, you're not allotted many of the Christmas-y traditions of cooler climes. Snowmen are hard to make when it's 60 degrees, and you could only organize a neighborhood snowball fight if you shaved the ice yourself.

So, around Christmas of 1996, my father got the notion that if we were going to have any traditions at all, we would have to make our own. But family customs, like nicknames, have to arise organically — you can't make them up yourself, or the universe will correct your mistake with hilarious consequence. So it was with the chestnuts.

For his first attempt at tradition-genesis, Dad found inspiration from what he thought was the purest of muses: "The Christmas Song." To him, that lovely tune heard every winter season on the radio exemplified everything Christmas was about. And if we couldn't have Yuletide carols being sung by a choir or Jack Frost nipping at our noses, then, by God, we would at least have chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

But this was Nevada, where a warm embrace is enough to cause a brushfire, and open flames were outlawed. So we used a grill.

Two things wrong with this. First, a grill concentrates all the heat on one area of the food; that's why you've got to flip burgers. Second, you're supposed to cut notches in chestnuts before roasting to let the pressure escape. We neglected to recognize either issue, which is why, as we gathered around the grill to watch our first tradition come to life, the chestnuts began to whistle.

Our gazes narrowed at the shells. "Are they supposed to do that?" my sister asked.

Nope, the universe answered.

Pop pop pow pop pow! It was like someone had set off a string of Black Cats. We dove for cover as woody shrapnel shot across the yard. Molten chestnut guts spat from the grill as if shot from an IED. It was a grisly scene.

After the chaos subsided, we dusted off the bits of shell covering our clothes and began the arduous process of cleaning chestnut goo from my sister's hair. A tradition was born that day, in a way — the telling of the chestnut assault. But there would be more custom-creating attempts before we were through.


RED JELL-O CHRISTMAS

By Kristin Grady Gilger

There are two types of holiday meals: the kind I'd like to make and the kind I actually make.

It's not that I'm bad in the kitchen. I'm actually pretty good, considering that I spend so little time there. Holidays are the one day a year when my husband and I reverse our reversed roles: Gary does the traditional husband thing — watch football, eat dip, and nap — while I hunt for the knives and try to remember the old rhythms of cutting-chopping-basting-tasting. (Well, I never actually forgot the tasting part.)

Gary cooks almost every other day of the year, so I figure this is the least I can do. And I kind of enjoy it.

I make my own cranberry sauce from real cranberries with cherries added to take away a little of the tartness. I make pie crusts from the St. Francis DeSalle's cookbook my aunt gave me for my wedding, and if there's any dough left over, I carve little leaves and decorate the crusts before putting the pies in the oven. I thaw two loaves of frozen bread dough and stretch and twist them together, letting the braided loaf rise again before slathering it with butter and baking it to a golden brown. I pile oranges and cranberries in a big vase and place it at the exact center of the table. I get out my blue plates and grandma's old silver and the (slightly stained) white linen napkins.

It all looks so perfect in those few minutes when everyone gathers around the table, before the first bite. Then one of my daughters will ask: "Where's the Jell-O?"

There must — always — be Jell-O. And Jell-O is the one thing I cannot make. No matter how carefully I follow the directions, my Jell-O ends up a red soupy affair, with grains of sugar that refuse to dissolve and marshmallows that float off the plate. My Jell-O is sadly undeserving of the name.

This does not deter my children. Their grandmother made this Jell-O, and it has been served every Thanksgiving and every Christmas of their lives. It is tradition. It is sacred. And so I do the only thing I can: I ask my husband to make the Jell-O. For reasons I cannot explain, his Jell-O always comes out perfectly: You can cut it into nice little squares and the marshmallows actually stay put.

Still, I resist. We are, after all, talking about Jell-O, the homeliest of desserts, beloved in elementary school cafeterias and Iowa farm homes and a staple of church potlucks. But on my holiday table? Where am I supposed to put it? Certainly not next to the nice cranberry, orange, and endive salad with toasted pecans. And nowhere near the steaming dish of sliced apples and squash drizzled with brown sugar and syrup.

I give up and just pass the dish. "Have some Jell-O," I say as cheerfully as I can. "It wouldn't be a holiday if we didn't have Jell-O!"

Most of our guests look at the wobbly concoction and pass — unless they're from another country. In my experience, people from other countries who happen to find themselves at your Thanksgiving table are far too polite to turn down anything, even if it resembles cat food (not that I'm comparing Jell-O to cat food. I know of no cat that would eat it).

Last Thanksgiving, a woman from China was one of our guests, and when the Jell-O came around, she scooped up a big spoonful and ate it without comment. She ate everything else, too, so I did not take this as a sign of approval. But when dinner was over and I was packing up leftovers for people to take home, I asked her what she would like.

"Please," she said pointing to the Jell-O. "Very, very good!"

"The Jell-O?" I asked, incredulous.

I gave her all of it, although I knew my children would squeal in protest the next day when they found no Jell-O in the fridge. How often do you get to serve Jell-O to someone from the other side of the planet — someone who actually likes it and wants to take it home with them?

My ideal holiday meal — the one I would like to cook — would not include Jell-O or ketchup (something my daughter insists on having with her turkey. I make her keep it under the table). In fact, it would not include anything red at all except for a few cranberries and a nice pinot noir.

But that is not the meal I cook. It is not the meal I will ever cook — because if I did, it would not be our family's holiday meal.


LAST CHRISTMAS

By Susan Tully

Last Christmas Eve, no one who came to my house for dinner knew Dad was dying except me. He didn't want knowledge of his cancer diagnosis to project gloom over the evening. He wanted the holiday, his last Christmas, to seem as "normal" as possible.

Although I was hosting 22 people for dinner, my attention was on Dad all night. I mingled as I cooked, but always, out of the corner of my eye, I was watching him. He's laughing and chatting. That's nice . . . He still seems to have some energy . . . He looks so frail . . .

Dad had been having a lot of trouble keeping food down, so I discreetly included some items in the menu that I thought he could eat: a puréed sweet potato dish that he loved, savory garlic mashed potatoes, soft chewy dinner rolls, and creamy chocolate cheesecake for dessert. I watched him throughout dinner.

Normally, Dad ate a lot and ate it fast. But this night, he paced himself carefully, putting his fork down and letting minutes pass between bites. As I dished out seconds around the table, I leaned close and whispered in his ear, "How are you doing? How is your stomach?"

"I'm okay," he answered. "The food tastes really good."

Two days later, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic. Throughout his hospital stay, he clung to a small, pink emesis basin, afraid of losing whatever small meal he managed to get down. We brought him home on New Year's Eve for what would be the last nine days of his life.

My brother, John, a chef, flew in from Chicago. We planned a long day of cooking at Dad's house to fill his fridge and freezer. We agonized over how to nourish Dad's ailing body, wanting desperately to prepare healthy foods that would taste good to him and most importantly, that he could keep down. It became our mission.

Cooking with my brother is a rare treat. I enjoy how he teases me about my rudimentary culinary skills, teaches me chef's techniques like the proper way of handling a knife, and inspires me to take risks in the kitchen. Cooking together over the holidays should have been an especially festive experience, but not on this day. My brother and I worked shoulder to shoulder, practically in silence. I made simple soups in my crockpot: a healthy split pea; a rich cream of potato. John tasted what I made and in hushed tones gave me tips on how to season and add flavor.

John roasted a chicken and shredded the meat for creamed chicken and dumplings. He boiled potatoes and made gnocchi with béchamel sauce from scratch. I watched in awe as he assembled the ingredients from memory and sculpted each morsel into a tender bite of carefully considered size and texture for Dad. I glanced at my brother's face as he kneaded the dumplings and saw that his eyes were wet with tears.

Though he couldn't eat much, Dad savored these small gifts of food we offered him. He expressed pleasure over the flavors, and it was clear that these little meals brought him brief moments of joy in his final days. Best of all, for the first time in months, he kept it all down. It was a small triumph.

A few days later, Dad was gone.

As we cleaned out his house in the coming weeks, we found that his freezer was still packed with the soups and chicken and dumplings. I was told to take it home and feed it to my family. I thawed it on the countertop and warmed it in the microwave. As I took the lid off the Tupperware bowl and looked inside, I was overcome with emotion.

I thought of Dad on Christmas Eve. That day of silent cooking in Dad's kitchen. The tears in my brother's eyes.

I couldn't eat the food. And I couldn't serve it to my family. I knew that despite all the love and care that went into cooking it, it would just taste too sad.

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